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Necessary Independence: The Power of a Summer Sans-Parents

For many of the thousands of children who will be leaving the familiarity of home to attend overnight camp for the first time this summer, there will be an adjustment to living without many of the comforts that define twenty-first century childhood. For the first time, many of these children will be living without iPads or without cellphones. Perhaps they will experience life without electricity or air conditioning, or without a bathroom comfortably attached to their room. The list goes on, and it is the absence of many of these elements that makes camp such a unique place for child development. However the most notable absence for most (if not all) of these children will also be the most difficult to adjust to, and the most crucial to their development. For the first time, these campers will be living without their parents.

The Washington Post recently published an article detailing six ways in which good and well-intentioned parents contribute to their children’s anxiety. Many parents today are hyper-aware of the needs or wants of their child, and are hyperactive when it comes to doing whatever it takes to cater to those desires. These parents quickly apply a Band-Aid at the sight of any scratch, expeditiously engage a tutor at the first sign of a ‘C’, and promptly prepare an e-mail if a child is the object of bullying or mistreatment at school.

However, an unintended consequence of this love and attention is that it can prevent children from learning how to advocate for themselves. I personally grew up with a mother who was ready to storm into battle at the first sign of injustice, and as a result the easiest course of action when I was displeased was, quite simply, to tell mom. Unfortunately that simple solution was not sustainable – my mother wasn’t going to talk me into already-full classes in college, she wasn’t going to reconcile disputes between myself and my closest friends, and she wasn’t going to confront my bully of a neighbor who perceives the sound of an electric toothbrush as an affront to his peace and tranquility. As I grew older, I needed to learn how to advocate for myself, how to determine when frustration is justified, and how to handle my own disappointments. And my foundational experiences with these lessons were learned out of necessity – they were learned because I was at camp, and my parents were not.

Summer camp is a safe, protected environment. For each child there is a network of staff members and a leadership team determined to ensure that the summer is a positive experience, and a camp director is within easy reach. However, as children adjust to group living, they will inevitably encounter some conflict – perhaps a friend will sit on their bed without asking, or they will not be selected for a baseball tournament, or maybe they’ll just miss home. And there will certainly be an adjustment period for a child who has, thus far, spent a lifetime relying on their parents. However, as a child learns to live without, they will grow within – they will learn to settle disputes, to communicate their disappointments, and to advocate for themselves within a community. They will become more independent and self-assured, and better equipped to handle the pitfalls and problems that life throws their way. They will accomplish all of this simply because they have to – and this is the power of a summer spent without parents.

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